Thursday, March 10, 2011

Silicon Something: Necessary but not sufficient

In late 2010, David Cameron unveiled plans to support the continued development of London's 'Silicon Roundabout' - the cluster of predominantly web-related start-ups that have grown up in east London - to help make it "one of the world's great technology centres" ( Following this announcement, The Economist noted that: "Measured by the concentration of technology firms and the availability of generous and informed investors, California’s Silicon Valley is still in a league of its own. But in the second division of hubs, this chunk of east London is near the top, along with the likes of Boston and Tel Aviv. That its growth took place so quickly, and during a recession, is remarkable enough: the high-tech zone in Cambridge has taken decades to evolve. But the fact that Silicon Roundabout also emerged without government support, or even direct links with universities, should pique the interest of countries that have tried to cultivate technology hubs without the same success" (

This can be seen as an interesting illustration of the role of innovation journalism and the use of metaphors in focusing attention onto a particular region and helping attract resources to support growth. This effect was described in an interesting article by Uskali and Nordfors on the role of innovation journalism in developing regional innovation ecosystems such as Silicon Valley (tweeted by Sherry Coutu of, among many other things, Silicon Valley Comes to Cambridge) . The key conclusion of the article is that innovation journalism: "[..] is essential in innovation economies, since a) an innovation is the introduction of something new b) it is difficult to discuss new things if there is no common language for them and c) journalism is a key actor for introducing common language for innovations, so that they may be discussed. " (Uskali and Nordfors, 2007).

For Cambridge, there have been two key 'labelling moments'. The first was the publication of the "Cambridge Phenomenon" report in 1985 by Segal, Quince and Partners (now SQW). The second was the 1998 article in the New York Times entitled "In Old England a Silicon Fen: Cambridge as a High-Tech Outpost". Both the 'Cambridge Phenomenon' and 'Silicon Fen' labels have proved remarkably effective at providing a hook onto which numerous innovation-related news stories can be neatly hung which, in turn, help attract the interest of policymakers, investors, and entrepreneurs.

Innovation journalism seems to play an important role in the development of a regional cluster, and the catchy labels or metaphors may provide a useful focal point onto which the interest of investors and entrepreneurs can be targeted. But the wonderful list of 'Silicons' published at show that a memorable name may be necessary but is not sufficient to ensure the development of a great technology centre.